Corbin finds positives and negatives in start; Ward optioned to Triple-A

JUPITER, Fla. – We’ve reached the point of spring training where it’s appropriate to start looking more at results, though perhaps not enough to start reading too much into them.

What, then, to make of Patrick Corbin’s start this afternoon during the Nationals’ 11-4 exhibition win over the Cardinals? The left-hander gave up three runs on six hits and two walks, all while throwing a whopping 74 pitches in only 3 2/3 innings. But he also notched six strikeouts, four of those coming on his newly developed cutter.

“Obviously, you want good results,” Corbin said. “The first inning, to throw – what, 30 pitches? – is not ideal. But it’s going to happen at some point in the season. It’s not what you’re trying to do, but sometimes just try to see how you bounce back from that.”

Corbin did bounce back from a ragged opening frame, retiring five of the last six batters he faced. And the fact six of his eight total outs came via strikeout has to be encouraging for someone who has seen his strikeout rate plummet over the last six years from 11.1 to 6.2 per nine innings.

Corbin now has 16 strikeouts in 12 1/3 innings this spring, which equates to 11.7 per nine. And many of those are coming on the pitch he is currently adding to his repertoire and producing positive results to date.

After watching his fastball/slider combo get hammered by opposing hitters in recent seasons, Corbin has introduced the cutter this spring, hoping that pitch which falls right in between the other two in terms of velocity and break can better keep hitters off balance. He wound up throwing 16 of them today, and 13 of them landed for strikes, including swinging strikeouts of Nolan Gorman, Dylan Carlson (twice) and Jared Young.

“I’ve been around the zone with it, throwing strikes with it,” he said of the cutter, which averaged 84 mph today. “I think it’s going to tick up a bit in velo as the regular season comes and you get into a big league stadium. I’m excited where it’s at. It’s very different from the slider, and another look off the fastball. I’m just excited to see where it comes. But I think the location has been pretty solid with it.”

Success with the cutter couldn’t completely overshadow Corbin’s other struggles today, though. He was roughed up in the first inning, with four of St. Louis’ first six batters reaching base, including Paul Goldschmidt’s double to left-center on the ninth pitch of his at-bat. Corbin issued a two-out walk of the Cardinals slugger the next inning, then served up an RBI single to Gorman.

By the time he departed at the end of the second, the lefty’s pitch count was already up to 52.

“The balls that were really hit hard, they were all up,” manager Davey Martinez said. “We always talk about with him: When he’s down, he’s very effective. Pitch count got up there. … He’s got to understand that down is good for him.”

Corbin did end his afternoon with a flourish, ranging far to his left to retrieve Michael Siani’s drag bunt and then flipping the ball directly from his glove to first baseman Joey Gallo for an impressive out.

“We work on PFPs a lot here. We haven’t worked on that one,” Corbin said with a smirk. “But you do those things just to get your reaction down. As a pitcher, I’ve always tried to go after every ball until you’re called off. Those are plays in the regular season that can help get you out of an inning, or maybe face one less hitter and try to keep us in the game.”

* The Nationals made another roster move after the game, optioning Thaddeus Ward to Triple-A Rochester after the right-hander tossed a perfect inning of relief.

As was the case with Cole Henry, DJ Herz and Mitchell Parker earlier in the day, Ward was sent down so he can begin getting regular starter’s work entering the minor league season.

Ward, 27, was the top pick in last year’s Rule 5 Draft, selected away from the Red Sox. The Nats managed to satisfy Rule 5 requirements by keeping him on the major league roster and injured list the entire season, using him almost exclusively in low-leverage relief situations. Ward wound up pitching in 26 games, finishing with a 6.37 ERA and 1.613 WHIP.

All along, the organization hoped to just get Ward through the year without having to offer him back to Boston. Now he’s allowed to be optioned to the minors, where he’ll be built up to start and be among the club’s potential call-ups when they need pitching help during the course of the season.

“He’s had a really good spring training, as far as throwing strikes,” Martinez said. “Hopefully he keeps it that way, and he’s consistent. As I told everybody today: In the course of the year, we’re going to need starters. Get yourself ready, and be ready.”

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